Loose Lips May Sink Trump’s Ship

The president’s deal with Schumer and Pelosi boosted his approval ratings, but his trash-talking style could haunt him in the midterms and in 2020.

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Sept. 25, 2017, 8 p.m.

Analysts are sifting through a mountain of just-released national polling from ABC News/Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal, along with the continuous flow from the Gallup Organization, but a couple of snap impressions are already in order.

First, President Trump’s overall job-approval ratings have ticked up a few points from their low ebb over the summer. Some of the gain is attributable to him finally scoring a major legislative victory, albeit in an unexpected way—a deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that both surprised and appalled their Republican counterparts, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Reaching across the partisan divide to get something done no doubt caused the uptick of 3 or 4 points.

Second, contrary to much speculation, Trump’s numbers among Republicans did not plunge as a result of the cross-partisan deal. In Gallup’s continuous tracking, his approval ratings among his fellow party members rose a couple of points as well. It was a reminder that when activists and ideologues rant on cable television and talk radio, they’re expressing their own views, not those of the of the rank and file or political leaders.

Party bases, Republican or Democratic, and ideological bases, liberal or conservative, reflect only a quarter or a third of the country, give or take a few points. Ideologically, the country is shaped more like a bell curve, with most people clustered in the middle. For that matter, few congressional districts or even states truly mirror the nation as a whole. The Republican obsession with repealing and replacing Obamacare and the Democratic infatuation with a single-payer system are examples of people on each side assuming that everyone else sees things as they do.

As much as I personally like the idea of going across the aisle to reach agreements, a throwback to the days when Congress got things done even if somewhat inefficiently, I can’t help but wonder about Trump’s motives in reaching out to Schumer and Pelosi without even giving a heads-up to McConnell and Ryan. The thought occurs that he might have enjoyed sticking a thumb in the eyes of the Republican leaders, whom he doesn’t respect and seems to dislike personally.

I am still convinced that Trump will rue the day months ago when he began disparaging GOP leaders and congressional Republicans. The wedge that he has driven between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill will cause him no end of grief in next year’s midterm elections. Imagine going to voters with this message: “It’s important for you to vote and support the people that I spent most of last year trashing.”

Another factor in Trump’s improved job-approval rating may well be the impact of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has imposed a degree of order and discipline on a White House that previously had little of either. Before Kelly, the West Wing was an unfortunate combination of the Keystone Kops and a circular firing squad, a source of consternation not only to Trump supporters but also to Americans who simply wanted the country to do well.

While Kelly can limit White House infighting, he can’t prevent the president from slipping his leash. Donald Trump will still be Donald Trump. Whether making a strident speech at the United Nations or baiting North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un or picking a fight with the NFL and NBA, Trump enjoys overturning the political apple cart—and throwing a few apples for good measure.

His supporters thrill to his jibes and politically incorrect pronouncements. It reassures them that he is not just another professional politician and that he understands the frustrations that have been building over the years. At the same time, when Trump hurls a rotten apple, it reminds his critics of the imprudent and unpresidential behavior that drives them crazy. As some detractors described his United Nations address, it was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

Trump’s behavior simultaneously intensifies both his support and opposition, leaving few in the middle. This should come as no surprise. After all, this is the way candidate Trump conducted himself during the campaign. He didn’t capture a majority or even a plurality of the national popular vote, but he still won—and he clearly believes that his victory in the Electoral College reflects the will of the American people.

His unusual and improbable victory reinforced a political style that may not be as successful for his party in next year’s midterm elections or even in 2020, should he stand for reelection. Politics has usually been about addition, not subtraction, and the fact that his job-approval rating has been below even his percentage of the national popular vote suggests that he has been subtracting, not adding. This is not the math of a successful presidency.

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